Happy Friday! I hope everyone has some mini raw, vegan almond joy bars on the weekend agenda.
I’m here today with a new Green Recovery post. I actually received this submission nearly two months ago, but didn’t want to post it until I’d had a chance to contemplate it a bit. It is one of the most moving, thoughtful, and honest GR posts I’ve ever gotten, and I love that it offers us the vantage point of someone who has struggled with EDs over the course of a few decades. I have some thoughts to share about how terrific it is, but first, I’ll let you read the submission itself. The author has asked me to change her name for the purpose of sharing, so we’ll call her Sharon. I hope you appreciate her story as much as I do.
I deliberated responding to Gena’s challenge to write a bio, extended to me some months ago when I wrote her a short letter. I didn’t think my story is unique (unfortunately!) or particularly revealing, or that writing it would have any personal benefit. Her posts during NEDA week, though, made me feel that I had a responsibility to contribute a perspective that I haven’t ever read before – that of eating disorders persisting as we age. Now that I think about it, binging and purging is such an in-the-moment kind of thing that we can easily lose track of the time passing – years that might well have been spent in other, more constructive pursuits. Nearly two years ago, when the actress Lynn Redgrave died at age 67 of breast cancer, some mention was made in the press of her life-long battle against bulimia. I thought, poor woman, still? Even in her 60s? Then I reflected on my own situation, recalled (with some discomfort, I might add) my own chronological age and realized that dying with bulimia intact is not as far-fetched a notion as I might want to believe.
I was a fat kid in the 60s, a time when there weren’t many fat kids. My mother and father, though concerned about my weight (which, in retrospect, was not so excessive), were themselves poor models for good eating habits. Family meals were virtually non-existent in our household, and my mother never cooked. It boiled down to this formula: I was an unhappy teenager because I was overweight; being thin would transform me into a happy one. So my parents tried to be “helpful” in all the wrong ways. They tried restricting food, weekly weigh-ins, bribery and all kinds of other stuff. Suffice it to say, I have few memories of family and food, and none of them are happy ones. Weight Watchers, Atkins, calorie-counting (a nasty mental exercise that remains with me to this day)… I don’t blame them, as they both worked long hours and had their own issues with family/food dynamics. Also, the type and amount of information available in the 1950s and 60s was very different than what we know today! So, while their intentions were good, the control dynamics and outcomes created nothing but misery for me and my siblings.
I began hiding food and binging, then vomiting when I was 12 or 13 years old. Around that time I remember reading a letter in Dear Abby’s column written by someone who binged and vomited, and remember thinking, how strange, I thought I was the only one who knew how to do that! I binged on Betty Crocker cake mix, graham crackers and Chips Ahoy cookies, whatever I could buy or find at home and in the houses where I babysat. And, with little exception, that’s pretty much the pattern that continued for the next few decades. I was one of those college students that Gena mentioned; in my case, the one who knew the location of every toilet in every building on campus! But in a very different era – more than 30 years ago, at a time when awareness of anorexia and bulimia as mental illnesses was just dawning, and options for treatment were not yet available. For those among us who grew up with the term “eating disorder,” it’s probably hard to imagine a time without it! But back then, it was a newly developing field and today’s vast amount of literature didn’t exist.
I read the relevant books as they began to emerge in the 1980s and 90s, but for the most part, I was not reflective about my binge-purge behavior, nor did I try to resist it. Binging and purging was something I had to do in order to feel a sense of relief so I could get on with my studies; the rest of the time I simply didn’t think about it. As an undergraduate student at my large, Midwestern university, I once attempted to seek help at a newly opened eating disorders clinic, but even the staff there didn’t seem to have a clue how to deal with me. I left the hospital following my initial interview and checkup, never to return. I don’t think I was in denial (who can ever admit she’s in denial?!), but at the time, I simply did not have a compelling reason to give up bulimia.
I became very conscious of my disordered eating only when I had children of my own. (By then, I had moved from the United States to a country where there is little, if any, awareness of bulimia.) From the time they were born, I made a deliberate effort to give them a better model than the one with which I had grown up. Unlike my mother, whose eating was disordered and who relied on canned and frozen foods, I have always cooked real food, stocked lots of fruits and vegetables and tried to instill healthful eating habits. I never ate over the sink or in the bathroom when the kids were around, and, to the best of my ability, modeled a “normal” relationship with food. Although a normal relationship with food is not what I myself have managed to maintain over the years, I’m extremely proud of the fact that this disordered eating is one thing that my three kids didn’t inherit from me! Though working full-time, Ph.D. studies and three children kept me busy, I still engaged in secret binging and purging, at times only occasionally and at times more often than that. Not a few times a day any more, like before I was married, but a few times a week, which then decreased over the years to a few times a month.
The frequency with with I binged and purged had drastically decreased because of my personal circumstances – I had other stuff I needed to get done that was more important. I had also found healthier outlets for stress, such as exercise videos and walking. The changes were gradual, taking place over periods of years. One strategy that really helped me to improve my body image was saying goodbye to the scale – first thing in the morning, that number was just too powerful a determinant of how that day was going to go! After my third child was born, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life overweight. Over a period of eight or so years, I lost 20-25 pounds in a mostly healthful way, despite the continued binges. My weight has remained stable, “normal” for the first time in my life, despite the fact that I still sometimes had to fight to overcome my own mental image of my former fat self. Amazing the power of the mind, how it literally changes the image reflected in the mirror… Despite this progress, I have still been susceptible to certain “trigger” situations which demanded the comfort that binging had always brought me, like being overtired, feeling a little down or even just having a pint of ice cream in the freezer with nobody else at home
In the last decade I have became concerned about any physical consequences that might result from long-term bulimia. The hungover, dehydrated feeling the morning after had become worse, even after short binge-purge incidents, accompanied by a few days of congestion and a drippy nose. In addition, I often suffered from sinus infections that only antibiotics would clear up. I started looking ahead and asking myself, why am I doing this? What purpose is this habit serving? Do I really need this? Will I still be doing this when I’m 40? 50? Heightened self-awareness and online support (listening to my body, mindfulness exercises, reading blogs like Gena’s and Dr. Fuhrman’s), healthful eating (mostly vegan, high-raw diet) and regular exercise (cycling, walking, yoga) have helped me feel better about my body, to the extent that for the last ten years or so, I have rarely binged. “Rarely” is a relative word – a few times a year, sometimes a few times a month, then not for another 8 months.
At one point, I decided to record the incidences in my calendar, which helped me view binging and purging as a habit, a conscious choice, as something I could also choose not to do. A throwback habit to a bygone era when bulimia served as a stress-relieving mechanism or filled the inner emptiness. (Whatever – I lived in the U.S. long enough to get good and afflicted, but didn’t stick around for therapy or the cure! It is gratifying to see the online resources available today to those seeking help.) I’ve developed a repertoire of options that do the job just as well as, if not better than, binging. Although I don’t use food to fill emotional needs or seek “relief” in the same abnormal ways I once did, a binge is still just one trigger away. Even when the urge to binge does strike, however, most of the time I can talk myself out of it in a way that would have been impossible when I was younger. It’s all in my mind, I now recognize, a way of feeling better that actually feels worse. Reconnecting to my physical self more often brings a satisfying resolution to my mind dissonance, or providing what it really wants (e.g., sleep, expressing emotions, etc.) rather than another round of emptiness over the toilet bowl.
Although objectively I would have to admit that bulimia has consumed (no pun intended!) a substantial part of my time, energy and financial resources, my eating disorder has never defined me or prevented me from achieving academically or professionally. As I wrote, over the course of nearly four decades, any binging that I did was in secret – that’s one thing that hasn’t changed over time. Of course I fully recognize that this secrecy is the main reason that, despite the decades, I’m still in recovery rather than thoroughly and completely recovered. Bulimia has always been a very compartmentalized behavior for me – I’ve spent little time thinking about it when I wasn’t actually doing it. No doubt it’s largely because of this mental separation that the behavior has long outlasted the useful function it once served in my life. Perhaps if it were a more conscious behavior, or if I were better at reminding myself that a binge is just a trigger away, I wouldn’t ever be caught off-guard… Very few people have ever known that I am bulimic; even family members, friends and colleagues who know me well would be astonished to hear that it is a part of who I am.
Given my 40-year experience with bulimia, what words of wisdom do I have to offer to others? Gena’s word “compassion” figures big in how I strive to treat myself and others, more so than I ever used to before. I try to flow with stuff that happens, instead of trying to control it. If it’s a too-large family meal, for instance, that’s okay – it was mostly veggies anyway (!) and there’s always tomorrow to get back in touch, exercise and feel better. Because it’s not about greater control, but about greater compassion and self-forgiveness. Also important is the recognition that recovery is a lifelong process. All the same, time does pass, so take my story as a wake-up call and take steps to make peace with your body sooner rather than later.
Today, at age 52, looking back at my own lifetime of disordered eating, I wish I could frame it more definitively in the past tense. That’s what I would have wanted to be able to say, but that’s not quite how it has worked out. But what matters more is that I have experienced success regardless, my awareness that it’s not just okay, but human to be imperfect; that my children, now young adults, make healthy food choices because I taught them how; finally, I am healthy and most of the time choose life, as Gena so aptly put it in a recent post.
Thank you, Sharon!
What a joy it is to read something as thoughtful and reflective as this post. I had many thoughts as I was reading, but the first was this: gratitude to hear the perspective of someone who isn’t a teen or twenty-something. So often, dialogs about EDs focus on young adults. This is understandable, since the disease so often hits in puberty and ebbs and flows throughout college and the years right after, but it just as often persists well into adulthood. When I wrote this blog post on EDs and the Executive Woman, one of my readers, who had worked at an ED clinic that summer, mentioned that she had not seen one patient under the age of twenty-five. I really encourage you to read that post again, if you haven’t; it gives some valuable perspective on this topic. While I feel confident that I have put my ED behind me, I also know that, had I made just a few different choices, I might still be trapped. EDs are not a youthful phenomenon, and in fact, they can be more difficult to treat as one grows older because the habits are more ingrained, and there are fewer support groups (teachers, peers, hovering parents) in place to intervene.
Speaking of putting my ED behind me, this post got me thinking about the nature of recovery. I consider myself fully recovered, but to me, recovery is not synonymous with “I never ever feel susceptible to a disordered thought or impulse.” This is something I’ve written about a lot. I believe firmly in the possibility of a rich, full life after EDs, and I also believe that one can learn to totally redefine one’s relationship with food (I’ve done it myself!). But I don’t know that we can leave EDs behind to the extent that they don’t sometimes creep into our thinking; to some extent, they are a part of us–if only because they’ve shaped our history. Sharon has made clear that her ED is not yet a part of her past–she still struggles sometimes–but I think her ability to accept that she’s not perfect and relapses happen is a wonderful thing; it means that, when she does reach a place where the behaviors are behind her (and I believe she will), she’ll have the compassion and patience that are so crucial to staying recovered.
Finally: I get a lot of private emails asking me to make Green Recovery broader and more representative. I’m asked for stories from people with binge eating disorder, bulimia, and EDNOS; I’m asked for stories about people who weren’t as easy to diagnose as some of the men and women I’ve featured (in other words, people whose EDs were more under the radar). Believe me when I say that I want nothing more than a LOT of diversity in this series! But I can’t create that diversity all by myself; I really count on you guys to share with me, represent your history, and create a huge patchwork of narratives. If there’s an element of recovery you think has gone missing here, tell me about it! And please consider sharing yourself.
With that, happy weekend!
“Compassion” image source
“Love Yourself” image source